Can Lawyers Trust Their Clients?

It was a simple case and a simple request. The case involved an older gentleman whose stockbroker had over concentrated his portfolio in real estate securities. When the 2008 real estate crash came the portfolio tanked. I was retained to recover his losses.

I drafted the claim and sent it to the client for his comments. I included simple instructions, “review it carefully and tell me if I have set out the facts correctly. At the hearing you will be asked to swear that this is true”.

One of the facts included in the claim was something the gentleman had told me at our first meeting; that he had never invested in real estate securities before.  This became important when the stockbroker being sued filed his answer. He said that the client had told him that he had previously invested in real estate securities and had lost money and therefore understood the transactions and the risk.

“Never happened” my client told me.

Sure enough, on cross examination, the defense attorney reminded my client that when he first became this broker’s client, years earlier, it was because the previous broker had recommended that he invest in securities that were very similar to the ones he was now complaining about.  Apparently, he had deposited a small check that he had received from a class action over a defunct real estate deal into the account early on.

The next question: “if you lost money in this type of securities before, why did you accept the broker’s recommendation to buy them again?” effectively dooming the case because the client did not have a good answer. I had not prepared him to answer the question that I never thought he would be asked.

I could attribute this to the client’s bad memory but that does not factor into every situation.

In another case, a different client revealed for the first time during cross examination that he had been accused by his wife during their divorce proceeding of molesting his own children. There was apparently enough truth to the allegation that he had been formally charged and sentenced to probation.

I always ask about past lawsuits and criminal matters at my first meeting with any client who is likely to take the witness stand. I believe that a lot of lawyers do so as well. This client did not think that it was important to tell me the truth. We did not win that case, either.

These client omissions resulted in lost cases and a fair amount of lost time.  Most lawyers do not lose too much sleep over it. There are a lot of things that can go wrong with any case. Every time two lawyers go into a courtroom, someone loses. Trial lawyers develop a thick skin.

Corporate lawyers with untrustworthy clients can get into more significant trouble. Lawyers who prepare the offering documents for the sale of securities take on a considerable amount of personal liability. Most of the big law firms that write the prospectuses for IPOs carry substantial liability insurance policies. And these firms usually do a pretty good job of getting the facts straight.

Still, if the offering is deficient and the investment fails anyone connected with the offering, including the lawyers are likely to get sued.

When I was a young lawyer learning how to prepare offering documents I attended a few seminars. One instructor offered an example of an attorney who had failed to do what he should have done and had gotten into a lot of legal difficulty.

The example went something like this:

An older gentleman who owned about $100 million worth of commercial real estate, mostly small office buildings with street level retail storefronts, wanted to retire and sell out. His son, who had no cash, wanted to continue to receive lucrative management fees and arranged a private placement to buy out his father.

Many of the tenants had been there for years and the father gave many of them long term lease extensions as he was preparing to sell. The leases were collected and reviewed by the lawyer who was preparing the private placement. These were reduced to a schedule which showed the current and projected rent roll for the buildings that was included in the private placement memorandum (PPM).

What was not disclosed was the fact that the father had also provided side letters to many of the tenants who he considered to be his friends allowing them to terminate their leases on short notice if market conditions deteriorated, which of course they did a few years later. Several tenants vacated and several more asked for rent reductions threatening to vacate based upon the side letters that had never been disclosed.

The investors sued and won. The state securities commissioner alleged fraud and the attorney was lucky to settle the case and retain his license to practice.

Attorneys who participate in the issuance of securities are obligated to conduct a reasonable investigation of the facts to make certain that what they disclose is accurate and complete.  This lawyer just accepted what his client told him at face value and suffered the consequences. That was the lesson that was being taught. Lawyers cannot trust their clients.

A few months ago I was approached by a small company that needed a private placement memorandum in order to crowdfund about $600,000. The company had already spent about $250,000 developing its product and was now getting ready to buy inventory and kick–off the business.

They did not want me to write the document. They had prepared it themselves using a software package that asked a lot of questions and spit out a private placement memo. All they wanted from me was to review the document and to “bless it”.  They had budgeted $1500 a legal review because they reasoned it could not take an attorney that long to read the document.

They told me that the software package was recommended as the best by several prominent bloggers and websites.  The software package was popular so they were confident that the resulting document would be fine.

Software templates for private placement memos have been around for a long time. There are dozens available today. For an attorney working without a secretary or paralegal, they certainly might have some utility.

Allowing a company to use a software template to write its own PPM without an attorney is like handing a child a loaded gun. Someone is going to get hurt. In most cases, it is probably going to be the investors.

I told the company what I would charge to review the document, make changes as needed and conduct a reasonable investigation to make certain that the facts were properly disclosed. It was more than $1500. They chose to find what they wanted elsewhere.

Several weeks later I came across the offering on one of the less expensive crowdfunding platforms.  I accessed the documents and saw that the PPM was mediocre at best. It just did not read very well.

They had removed some of the standard risk factors that I would have included for any startup. The prior work histories of the key executives were uneven. Some went back 10 years; others 5 years. There apparently was no marketing study and no discussion of the competition.  The PPM stressed how successful the company was going to be without a realistic discussion of what might go wrong.

The sales and profit projections were questionable.  They were projecting explosive growth in short order even though the company had not yet made its first sale. The company had nothing to support that projection except its own hopes and dreams.

I assume that some lawyer took their $1500 and signed off on the PPM as they presented it.  Some of the crowdfunding platforms require an attorney to review the PPM; some do not.

Most of the lawyers that I have met or corresponded with in the crowdfunding arena and the mainstream financial markets would insist on a reasonable investigation of the facts in any offering that they prepared. In most cases, you cannot do an investigation for a startup correctly for $1500.

I think it fair to question why the founders of a startup who are planning to get rich cannot budget more for a competent attorney than they do for pizza. I appreciate that lawyers have a bad reputation, but at the very least there should be some agreement that we are a necessary evil if the company is going to seek funding from investors.

The investigation is done partially to protect the lawyers from their own clients. It may not be what the entrepreneurs want to hear, but lawyers are not expected to trust their clients and the markets are safer and more efficient for it.